Agreement on warheads brings U.S., Russia closer to extending nuclear treaty

By Bryan Bender
·3 min read

The U.S. and Russia on Tuesday came closer to extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for one year in exchange for a freeze on all nuclear weapons, a breakthrough as President Donald Trump seeks a foreign policy win ahead of the election.

Russia brought the sides closer on Tuesday when it agreed to a U.S. offer that both countries should freeze their number of nuclear warheads of all types for one year.

"Our proposal can only and exclusively be implemented on the understanding that the United States will not advance any additional conditions with regard to freezing the arsenals," Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

"If this suits Washington," the statement added, "the time gained through the extension of the New START could be used to hold comprehensive bilateral talks on the future of nuclear missile control, with the mandatory discussion of all factors that can influence strategic stability."

Russian President Vladimir Putin had earlier offered to extend the treaty for five years without any preconditions, which the U.S. rejected. Late last week, Putin proposed a one-year extension without conditions, and the U.S. countered that any agreement must include the one-year freeze on all nuclear arms, including those not covered by New START.

The Trump administration on Tuesday sounded a positive note after Russia's statement.

"We appreciate the Russian Federation’s willingness to make progress on the issue of nuclear arms control," Megan Ortagus, a State Department spokesperson, said in a statement. "The United States is prepared to meet immediately to finalize a verifiable agreement. We expect Russia to empower its diplomats to do the same."

Ambassador Marshall Billingslea, Trump's top arms control negotiator, is in Brussels briefing fellow NATO members on the status of the talks.

New START, which began in 2010, limits both sides to 1,550 strategic warheads and 700 delivery systems. It is set to expire on Feb. 5, but allows for an extension of up to five years if both sides agree.

The developments raise the prospect that Trump could notch a major diplomatic achievement just two weeks from the election. His opponent Joe Biden has said he would extend the treaty with Russia for five years without preconditions, while Trump has insisted on a new arrangement that also limits nonstrategic, or battlefield, nuclear weapons.

“It’s a big win because no matter who wins the election, this is significant progress, dislodging a very entrenched Russian position," said Rebeccah Heinrichs, an arms control expert at the Hudson Institute.

But she also cautioned that the details of a freeze need to be worked out quickly.

“We obviously need a detailed verification plan before the U.S. moves forward with a one-year extension," she said. "A detailed verification plan should be intrinsic to the deal and not something the Russians can credibly count as an additional burden.”

"But this is a good commitment," she added.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, noted that the Russians have moved on from their original "clean" five-year extension. "And the Trump administration has shifted its position, too," he added. "The two sides are now closer, but there are still some differences and it will be interesting to see if Trump takes 'yes' for an answer."

"A one-year freeze would buy some time to negotiate something that is more durable," Kimball said.

But he also agreed that the key will be how to verify a freeze. New START requires each side to declare twice a year how many deployed strategic warheads it has but there is no formal accounting of the full breakdown on "exactly how many and which type of warheads," he said.

Lara Seligman contributed to this report.